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INTRO: What is Jizz? | T.A.Coward on Jizz | Etymology of Jizz | Other Definitions

THE ETYMOLOGY OF JIZZ

Article 19©96 by David McDonald

(This article was published in Canberra Bird Notes, Vol. 21, No. 1, March 1996, pp. 2-11.
Canberra Bird Notes is the journal of the Canberra Ornithologists Group, GPO Box 301, Civic
Square, Canberra ACT 2608, Australia. It is reproduced here with the permission of the
author and publisher.)

The word 'jizz' has been part of the language of birding, in the English-speaking nations, for some
years. To quote some prominent Australian examples, Pizzey's 1983 A Field Guide to the Birds of
Australia describes the Rose Robin Petroica rosea as having 'a more flycatcher-like jizz' than other
red-breasted robins, and reminds us that the yellow robins have 'a characteristic "jizz" ... they
typically cling sideways low on a vertical trunk or vine ...' (p. 273). The authoritative Handbook of
Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds (Marchant & Higgins 1990) describes the Intermediate
Egret Ardea intermedia as having a 'less stocky jizz' than a Cattle Egret Ardea ibis (p. 1017). The
term was also used in the 1984 Atlas of Australian Birds where the authors referred to '...the essential
characteristics or "jizz" of [a] species' (Blakers, Davies & Reilly 1984, p. xxxviii).

So what, exactly, do we mean by the term 'jizz' and where does it come from?

Meaning
An article published in 1990 in the Newsletter of the Cumberland Bird Observers Club states that:

Jizz is a relatively new addition to the terminology of bird identification and recognition.
It is one of the characteristics ... which enables a bird to be recognised instantly...
Examples are GANNET - appears large at sea, long neck and wedge-shaped tail
imparting distinctive 'pointed at both ends' jizz (Dymond 1990).

Contrary to the view of many people that 'jizz' is a slang or jargon term used exclusively and loosely
by birders, or one which really belongs in another world such as that of the military, jizz is found in
basic references, such as the Handbook referred to above and in ornithological dictionaries. For
example, A Dictionary of Birds by Campbell and Lack (1985) defines jizz as: 'A combination of
characteristics which identify a living creature in the field, but which may not be distinguished
individually' (p. 313). The glossary in Simpson and Day's (1993) Field Guide to the Birds of
Australia defines jizz as 'A word used by "twitchers" - avid birdwatchers - to describe everything
about a bird in one, all-embracing term; the essence or "character" of a bird in the field' (p. 379).

Although 'jizz' did not appear in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the second edition
(1989, p. 264) provides the following definition: 'The characteristic impression given by an animal or
plant', and this definition is carried across to more readily accessible editions of the OED such as the
Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary.

Origin
Where does 'jizz' come from? Three groups of possibilities are suggested in the literature and the
opinions of birders, as follows.

(a) General Impression of Size and Shape - GISS

Dymond (1990) suggested that:


'Jizz is a term derived from the fighter pilots' acronym, GIS - General Impression and Shape...'.

Harvey (1985) expressed a similar view in correspondence in British Birds, writing:

Surely 'jizz' is a corruption of the old Army term 'general impression and shape',
used by patrols, guards, and, particularly, coastal/aerial watchers? It is still in use
in the US Army at least, and is written 'G.I.S.'.

In fact, as evidenced by contributions on this topic distributed on the Internet discussion list Birdchat
in 1994, and from a number of personal conversations, the most commonly accepted origin of the
word jizz is, as Dymond suggests, a Second World War acronym concerned with the identification
of aircraft, both friendly and enemy. Most commonly, however, jizz is understood to have come not
from GIS (as Dymond and Harvey suggested) but from GISS, a contraction of General Impression of
Size and Shape. This explanation is found throughout the birding literature.

Some birders seem convinced of this origin. Mackiernan (1994) is one of these:

Nevertheless -- this from RAF person who is a birder -- 'GIZZ' does come from
the 'general impression, shape and size' rule from aircraft sighting.

And I think the Brits tend to be pretty effective gizz (or jizz) birders.

Kloot (1995) provides a fuller explanation of GISS:

During World War 2, pilots and their crew were briefed as to how to swiftly identify
various aircraft, both the enemy's, and their own.

In combat there was not time to reach for, and consult a manual, so images of planes
were flashed onto a screen, and the pilots and crew were required to instantly recognise
their features, contours and size; in fact, to gauge the 'General Impression of Shape
and Size' of every known aircraft. So, General Impression of Shape and Size became 'GISS'.

And from 'GISS' came 'Jizz'.

(b)Pre-World War 2 usage in nature studies

A quite different origin from WW2's GISS is found in standard sources. Both Lack and Campbell's
A Dictionary of Birds (1985) and the OED (1989) refer us to a book by a prominent British writer on
birds, T. A. Coward, published in London in 1922, titled Bird Haunts & Nature Memories. This is
what Coward wrote (as quoted in the OED, p. 246; page numbers in the quotation are references to
Coward):

A West Coast Irishman was familiar with the wild creatures which dwelt on or visited
his rocks and shores; at a glance he could name them, usually correctly, but if
asked how he knew them would reply 'By their "jizz".' What is jizz?.. We have not
coined it, but how wide its use in Ireland is we cannot say... Jizz may be applied to
or possessed by any animate and some inanimate objects, yet we cannot clearly define
it. A single character may supply it, or it may be the combination of many (p. 141).

... Jizz, of course, is not confined to birds. The small mammal and the plant alike have jizz (p.
143).

Here we have evidence that jizz long predated the Second World War. According to Coward, it was
used in the early part of the century, at least on the West Coast of Ireland, with the same meaning we
now give to it in birding and with the same meaning as that captured by the GISS acronym.

(c) Other suggested origins

American correspondent Wallace (1994) had a different view, stating that it comes from the WW2
acronym GIS which stood for 'General Identification System'.

Litwin (1994) went straight to the point, saying that:

... I thought 'jizz' was a contraction from 'just is'.

Danca (1994) came from a different angle altogether. He suggested that jizz:

... comes from a corrupted shortening of the word 'gestalt' mispronounced with a
soft G as in 'jestalt'. The term jestalt has been the common element in defining jizz in
nearly all the guesses that have appeared [in the 1994 Birdchat discussion].

That whole 'general impression of size and shape [or whatever]' origin sounds just
too neat. It feels like (and probably is) a back-construction from someone who invented
words to go with what he thought was an acronym. Besides, GISS would be pronounced
'jiss', not 'jizz' (or 'gizz'). Folks, I think we have an urban legend here with *this*
derivation. I still vote for the 'jestalt' origins.

Principe (1994) points to support for the 'gestalt' origin. He reminds us that Danca's view:

... is supported by Christopher Leahy in his book (The Birdwatcher's Companion


Bonanza Books, 1982). He says 'A distinctive physical "attitude", totally apart from
any specific field mark ... The origin of the term is uncertain; perhaps a corruption of
"gestalt"'.

('Gestalt' is a term used most commonly in psychology, meaning 'a configuration or figure whose
integration differs from the totality obtained from summing the parts' (Wolman 1989, p. 146)).

Two tasks remain. The first is to find out if GISS, General Impression of Size and Shape, was in fact
used in WW2. The second task is to find the origin of the West Coast Irishman's word jizz and to
corroborate Coward's explanation.
The etymology of jizz
(a) Corroborating the 'GISS' origin

In her article, Kloot acknowledges an English birding colleague as the source of her explanation
which is quoted in full, above. I have contacted him and he responded, writing:

I'm sorry to have to disappoint you, but I'm afraid that I can provide you with no
new information regarding the origin of the term. ...the explanation [which he gave to
Kloot and she published] is really no more than part of birding folklore and gains
more credence with each act of repetition (Smith 1995, pers. comm.)

An approach to the Australian Department of Defence, Air Force Office, Royal Australian Air Force
Historical Records and Information Services, was unsuccessful in locating any corroboration of the
use of the GISS acronym. A similar approach to the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence's Air
Historical Branch (RAF) met with the same negative result.

On a personal note I, too, have always believed that jizz came from the Second World War's GISS.
Indeed, I have a vague recollection that, as an Australian serviceman in the 1960s, I learned the term
in the context of aircraft recognition and only met it again when I came to birding in more recent
years. (Unfortunately this recollection is very foggy.)

On Smith's suggestion I turned to the 1990 book Birds by Character: A Field Guide to Jizz
Identification (Hume, 1990). It is an excellent guide to the birds of Britain and Europe but neither
defines jizz nor discusses its etymology. The author (who is associated with the Royal Society for
the Protection of Birds and is the editor of Birds) has indicated to me in correspondence that, in his
opinion, while the GISS idea sounds plausible, it is more likely to be incorrect.

Despite the inability of the RAF and RAAF historical sections to locate references to GISS and the
reservations about it as an, or the, origin of the birders' 'jizz' expressed by some commentators, I can
report first-hand evidence for (1) GISS being used in the UK during WW2 and (2) its drift from
aircraft identification to birding. This information comes from an English birder, James West,
currently at the University of Washington, a linguist by profession, who served in the Royal Air
Force during the 1950's. West writes:

The term 'jizz' came into use while I was growing up - I watched it catch on, if
you like. There isn't any doubt that it comes in the first place from GISS. This was a Royal
Air Force term, but what gave it the wide currency was the Royal Observer Corps,
a vast nationwide organization of volunteer aircraft spotters trained to detect the
approach of enemy aircraft and report them. This made the abbreviation of the term
'General Impression of Size and Shape' a household word in Britain...

The Irish west-coast 'jizz' is fascinating, and could conceivably have been
an assimilation cognate among the Irish living in England (of whom there were many
in the larger industrial cities, which were the strongholds of the Royal Observer Corps -
they were the bombing targets!), but it's simply too esoteric to be plausible as the
single origin of so widespread a term. Besides - I and many other Brits of that vintage
watched GISS become 'jizz' ... (McDonald 1995).

West (pers. com. 1995) later clarified his comments, confirming that he personally observed the drift
from 'GISS' to 'jizz':
I heard the term 'GISS' used by one of my grandfathers, who was [a senior person in]
the Royal Observer Corps ... I also heard it among kids of my own age and a bit older,
and some involved adults, as our games and hobbies, even a decade after the war,
reflected the excitements of wartime (one of the appalling things about war is how it
does this to children). Among these users the pronunciation had already become GIZZ
- a natural phonetic drift in English, especially among kids who sometimes didn't know
what it 'stood for'.

In due course, I noticed it showing up in both the conversations and the literature of
bird-watching. There would have been a considerable overlap between the people who
had outdoors interests like birdwatching, and the people who belonged to the ROC
during the war, or had relatives who did. I wish I could tell you when I first heard
birdwatchers use the term, but I can't - which means I would have heard it pretty
early on, and not have found it at all remarkable.

World War 2 usage

Although I have no reason to doubt West's first-hand explanation, I have been unable to locate any
documentary corroboration of the WW2 usage of GISS. This is surprising considering the quality
and quantity of the sources I have reviewed, primarily courtesy of the Research Centre at the
Australian War Memorial. GISS is not mentioned in the two standard histories of the Royal Observer
Corps (Winslow (1948) and Wood (1976)). To be fair, however, neither of these sources discussed
the day-to-day techniques applied to aircraft identification; neither provides an exposition of any
alternatives to GISS.

A book by Chichester, published in 1941 with the title The Spotter's Handbook, contains a chapter
on 'Systematic Identification'. It does not mention GISS nor does it apply the concept of the general
impression of an aircraft. Rather it describes what was apparently the accepted aircraft identification
technique, the 'WEFT' approach in which observers were directed to analyse separately the Wings,
Engines, Fuselage and Tail, the antithesis of the GISS approach.

The official 1946 UK War Office training manual on this topic has a section on 'Recognition by
Appearance'. It criticises the WEFT approach (without naming it) and applies the jizz/GISS approach
without referring to jizz, General Impression of Size and Shape, nor the acronym GISS:

... to the sportsman or country dweller a bird is recognized by its general appearance
and method of flight (practical) - not by details of the exact shape of various parts
of its body. Similarly, an aircraft is recognized by its general appearance and 'sit'
in the air, not by precise constructional details (anon. (1946), p. 3).

Finally, a 1977 Australian Army aircraft recognition training manual (anon. (1977)) provides a brief
history of the topic. It describes the WEFT system as 'the first formal aircraft recognition training
programme [which] was developed in England early in World War II. ... The US forces adopted the
WEFT system in 1946' (p. 101). It goes on to describe how a system was developed in the USA in
1942 emphasising the 'whole-image concept' (in contrast to the WEFT system). In modified form,
this was adopted by the US Navy in 1942 and by the US Army Air Corps in 1943 (p. 102). (The
temporal inconsistency here is in the original.)

These war-time military sources not only fail to refer to GISS but, in fact, explicitly cover the
concept of GISS/jizz, even referring to the parallel to birding! (Of course, my failure to find
documentary corroboration of the use of GISS in WW2 aircraft identification does not mean that it
was not used. It simply provides a challenge to others to locate the sources.)
(b) Corroborating Coward's West Coast Irishman's origin of jizz

As discussed below, the OED states that the etymology of Coward's jizz is unknown; in other words,
we do not know the origin of the word jizz as used by the West Coast Irishman from whom Coward
learned it. Enquires that I have made with members of the Internet Gaelic language discussion group
Gaelic-L and the Usenet group soc.culture.celtic have not revealed any Gaelic origin for jizz.

An intriguing possibility exists that Coward may have made a mistake from the beginning. The OED
and other dictionaries such as Partridge contain the English language word 'jism' or 'gism', also
rendered in other ways including 'jizz'. The word (with various spellings including 'jizz') is
frequently used in contemporary pornographic writing to mean seminal fluid. It was used in Roth's
Portnoy's Complaint (1967), and Partridge wonders if it has a Yiddish origin. Importantly for our
purposes, however, the OED gives an additional (and earlier) meaning, namely energy or strength,
noting that the word had its origin in the USA. It provides an 1842 example of use of 'gism' referring
the strength or energy of a horse, and a 1937 example where a person mentioned 'jism', referring to
the power of a motor vehicle.

Ivan T. Draper (1985) suggested that this was the word that Coward learned from his West Coast
Irishman. Draper wrote:

[The word jizz] was familiar ... to friends from Dublin and Kildare, and it was
generally used to imply spirit or cockiness. Schoolboys were encouraged to
'show a bit of jizz' and a sergeant-major regularly promised to knock the jizz or
jizzom (jissom) out of a squad of recruits. There was no suggestion that it
encompassed any idea of 'diagnostic characteristics' ...

It seems that we owe this useful term to Coward's misinterpretation of the 'West
Coast Irishman's' meaning.

This makes sense, considering that no etymology can be found for the word with the 'characteristic
impression' meaning. One can readily visualise the Irishman telling Coward that a particular bird
species was recognisable from its jizz, meaning specifically its cockiness or energetic characteristics,
rather than meaning its characteristic impression as such. On the other hand, I note below some
etymological arguments that suggest that Coward may have not been mistaken.

Etymology, and similar words and concepts


In presenting Coward's 1922 meaning and source of jizz, the OED states that the etymology of jizz is
unknown. It points to the similarly-sounding and similarly-meaning word guise, which it gives the
meaning 'manner of carrying oneself; behaviour, carriage, conduct, course of life'. It points out that
guise 'is coincident in sense [with jizz] but the phonetic relationship remains unexplained and the
two words may therefore be unrelated'. On the other hand, they may well be related!

According to the editor of British Birds, in a later edition of his book (I believe it was the 1931
edition but have not seen it), Coward added:

Since the publication of the first edition, a friend pointed out that in Webster's
Dictionary both 'gis' and 'jis' are given as obsolete variants of guise, and this
seems to be the origin of the expressive word (anon. (1984)).

Another word with a similar sound and meaning as jizz, but one which does not seem to appear in
the literature on the origins of the term, is 'gist', defined in the OED as the 'real ground or point,
substance or pith of a matter'. A Gaelic speaker, Fergus O'Dea, suggests that gist may be the, or an,
origin of jizz. After I advised him of Coward's West Coast Irishman's usage, he stated (pers. com,
1995):

Being from the west of Ireland myself, my guess [as to the origin of jizz] would be
that it is a corruption of 'gist', the English word. I knew ... the word, when you wrote
it, to mean 'essence' or 'gist' immediately, and had to struggle to figure out why.

He apologised for not being able to suggest an Irish language origin!

Before concluding, let me intrude just one more intriguing set of facts into the puzzle. Partridge's
(1984, p. 419) A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English includes the word 'gizz', defining
it as:

A face: Scot.: C. 19. (EDD.)


Perhaps influenced by phiz, but certainly derived from guise (a mask), of which it once formed
a var[iant].

(Note: 'EDD' is Joseph Wright's 1898-1905 The English Dialect Dictionary.)

Phiz (or phizz), according to Partridge, was an Eighteenth Century jocular, colloquial abbreviation of
'physiognomy' and meant a 'face; expression of face'.

We are left with a number of loose ends. One is the possibility of common origins for :

(a) the Nineteenth Century Scottish word 'gizz' (a face);


(b) the Eighteenth Century word 'phiz' or 'phizz' (face, expression of face);
(c) the English word 'gist' meaning the essence of something; and
(d) Coward's West Coast Irishman's 'jizz' (the characteristic impression given by an animal or
plant).

Another issue is the possibility that Coward was wrong from the start and that 'jizz', being the word
he introduced into birding, actually had a quite different meaning from the one he grasped.

Thirdly, it would be valuable to find documentary evidence for the use of GISS in the Second World
War's efforts in aircraft recognition, and for the drift in usage from that context to birding.

The lack of resolution of this puzzle provides a challenge to readers to take the etymological
detective work somewhat further. It also reminds us that, in a living and rapidly changing language
like English, a given word can have multiple origins and multiple meanings.

Acknowledgments
I acknowledge the assistance in the preparation of this paper provided by members of the Internet
discussion lists BirdChat and Gaelic-L. Particular thanks go to James West for reporting his personal
experiences, to Tor Ivar Bjonness and Stephen J. Bungard for their ideas and for suggesting literature
sources, and to the staff of the Research Centre of the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, for
facilitating my access to military documents.

References
Anon. (1946) Aircraft Recognition Training (All Arms) 1946, War Office, London.

Anon. (1977) Australian Army Training Information Bulletin No. 30: Aircraft Recognition Training
in the Australian Army 1978, Issued by command of the Chief of the General Staff [Australia]:
Headquarters Training Command, np.

Anon. (1984) The origin of jizz, British Birds, vol. 77, no. 8, p. 379.

Blakers, M., Davies, S. & Reilly, P. (1984) Atlas of Australian Birds, Melbourne Univ. Press,
Melbourne.

Campbell, B. & Lack, E. (eds) (1985) A Dictionary of Birds, Poyser, Calton.

Chichester, F. (1941) The Spotter's Handbook, Allen & Unwin, London.

Coward, T. (1922) Bird Haunts & Nature Memories, London, np.

Danca, R. (15 November 1994) Jizz = 'Gestalt'?, BirdChat [Online], available e-mail: BIRDCHAT
@LISTSERV.ARIZONA.EDU).

Draper, I. (1985) The Origin of 'Jizz', British Birds, vol. 78, no. 5. p. 252.

Dymond, T. (1990) Newsletter, Cumberland Bird Observers Club, vol.11, no. 5, p. 9.

Harvey, W. (1985) The Origin of 'Jizz', British Birds, vol. 78, no. 5. p. 252.

Hume, R. (1990) Birds by Character: A Field Guide to Jizz Identification, Papermac, London.

Kloot, T. (1995) 'The "Jizz" of a Bird', The Bird Observer, no. 750, March.

Litwin, N. (13 November 1994) Re: jizz, BirdChat [Online], available e-mail: BIRDCHAT
@LISTSERV.ARIZONA.EDU).

Mackiernan, G. (15 November 1994) Re: Jizz = "Gestalt"?, BirdChat [Online], available e-mail:
BIRDCHAT @LISTSERV.ARIZONA.EDU).

Marchant, S. & Higgins, P. (1990) Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds,
Vol. 1, OUP, Melbourne.

McDonald, D. (24 August 1995) The Etymology of 'Jizz' - further information, BirdChat [Online],
available e-mail: BIRDCHAT @LISTSERV.ARIZONA.EDU).

Oxford English Dictionary (1989), second edition, Clarenden Press, Oxford.

Partridge, E. (1984) A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, eighth edn, ed. Paul Beale,
Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Pizzey, G. (1983) A Field Guide to the Birds of Australia, Collins, Sydney.

Principe, B. (15 November 1994) Re: Jizz = "Gestalt"?, BirdChat [Online], available e-mail:
BIRDCHAT @LISTSERV.ARIZONA.EDU).

Simpson, K. & Day, N. (1993) Field Guide to the Birds of Australia, Viking O'Neil, Ringwood.
Wallace, J. (11 November 1994) Re: jizz, BirdChat [Online], available e-mail: BIRDCHAT
@LISTSERV.ARIZONA.EDU).

Winslow, T. (1948) Forewarned is Forearmed: A History of the Royal Observer Corps, Hodge,
London.

Wolman, B. (ed.) (1989) Dictionary of Behavioral Science, second edition, Academic Press, San
Diego.

Wood, D. (1976) Attack Warning Red: The Royal Observer Corps and the Defence of Britain 1925
to 1975, Macdonald & Jane's, London.

{DATE: 19/9/95}

Author:
David McDonald
PO Box 1355, WODEN ACT 2606
AUSTRALIA
E-mail: davidm@ozemail.com.au

Last revised on 25 Feb 1996

INTRO: What is Jizz? | T.A.Coward on Jizz | Etymology of Jizz | Other Definitions

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